April 17, 2020
‘The Year of the Protest Meets the Year of the Lockdown’
On a chilly evening in December, I clambered up a ramshackle structure on the top floor of a parking lot in Hong Kong. I was joining Joe, a 19-year-old who was waving a black flag emblazoned with Chinese characters (blink and it’s a pirate flag) and FREE HONG KONG REVOLUTION NOW in white.
There were thousands of chanting protestors in a big square below us. Many of them had gas masks dangling from their belts, anticipating baton-and-tear-gas wielding police showing up to break up the party, which had almost become customary.
Why are you all here? I asked Joe. “We just want democracy,” Joe told me. “Democracy and freedom.”
Joe may as well have been asking Santa Claus for a purple pony that poops platinum…
As I wrote a few months ago, Hong Kong’s increasingly desperate protests against mainland China – at the peak involving as many as 2 million people taking to the streets, or about a quarter of the island’s population – weren’t going to get Joe and his fellow Hongkongers any closer to democracy or independence.
Instead, they were dealt tear gas and rubber bullets in abundance. At best, Joe will grow up in a China-ified Hong Kong that in time will come to mostly look and feel like any other Chinese city, where AI-enhanced surveillance tamps down any whisper of dissent.
And now, in the age of coronavirus, protests are a thing of the past. “The year of the protest meets the year of the lockdown,” explained news website Axios in late March. “The enduring images of 2019 are of protest — from Hong Kong to Khartoum, across the Middle East and through much of Latin America. Seemingly overnight, though, social distancing has made such mass demonstrations almost unthinkable.”
Late last year, Joe was wearing a facemask and a hood, wary of facial recognition surveillance registering him in a Chinese government database. The drone drifting lazily above the parking garage and protest suggested that he wasn’t being paranoid. In 2019, the Hong Kong government tried to outlaw protestors from wearing masks, to make them more easily identifiable – and thus more likely to be turned down for a job or mortgage (or, worse, stuffed into an unmarked white van) because of their rebellious politics.
A few days ago I talked with Joe, who is hunkered down in a shoebox flat with his parents and sister in a quiet Hong Kong neighborhood. And like everyone else, now (ironically) he can’t even go outside unless he’s wearing a mask.
He says the independence movement is alive but slumbering. Meanwhile, the channel on Telegram – a social media app favored by the protestors – called “Navigate HK in time of social unrest” is posting spammy ads for foreign exchange options trading.
Joe may be able to hit the street again soon, as Hong Kong seems to be successfully “flattening the curve.” Cases of COVID-19 are up just 4% over the past week. In contrast, the U.S. has 48% more cases. Here in Singapore, though up from a low base, we’ve seen a jump up to 128%, and the “second ripple” that I wrote about a few weeks ago has turned into a wave.
Singapore is in a difficult spot, because its astonishing economic success over the past two generations – how it grew up from a tropical swamp to become one of the world’s richest countries – is based on the island being a thoroughfare of goods, people, and ideas. Now, Singapore’s iconic airport is closed, and the country’s borders are sealed, and the economy will shrink this year. It turned out that Singapore’s economy is more fragile than anyone had thought.
The opposite – an economy custom-made to thrive during a global pandemic – would be one that’s mostly inward-focused… doesn’t rely on foreign trade, investment, goods or people… and (similar to Singapore) where citizens are used to doing what they’re told.
That sounds a lot like Uzbekistan, one of the “stans” – the seemingly interchangeable (to outsiders, anyway) group of five post-Soviet countries in Central Asia. Home to 33 million people, it’s one of the Earth’s only two double-landlocked countries (that is, every country it borders is landlocked). Afghanistan is one of the few bordering countries that registers on the geographical conscience of people outside the region who don’t study maps for fun.
After the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union – which took economic self-sufficiency to the stupid extreme – Uzbek leader Islam Karimov competed with North Korea to make an art form out of xenophobia, military brutality, retrograde economic policies, and a nasty brand of isolation. Uzbekistan boasted of having one the world’s highest rates of domestic slavery and had a lower score than Saudi Arabia in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index. I didn’t find it to be the most welcoming place in the world when I visited in 1996.
When Karimov (finally) died about four years ago, his long-serving prime minister took over. Instead of carrying Karimov’s candle, the new president made an unexpected U-turn to economic liberalization and political transparency. The country started to open up, in a glasnost – final Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s openness – just 30 or so years after most of the rest of the USSR.
But you can’t opt in to globalization overnight – which turned out to be lucky for Uzbekistan. Exports and tourism don’t yet matter much to the country’s economy, and most companies focus on domestic consumption. It doesn’t hurt that the country has the fourth-largest gold deposits on Earth, and that it’s the seventh-biggest producer of uranium. So while the rest of the world is staring economic depression in the face, the Asian Development Bank says that Uzbekistan’s economy will grow by 4.7% this year.
Uzbekistan has been locked down since mid-March, a day after it had its first case of COVID-19. Another unexpected benefit of the country’s recent steel-boot authoritarian dictatorship past is that people tend to do what they’re told… So “stay at home” means that people do just that.
My friend Scott Osheroff, who runs a hedge fund that invests in Uzbekistan is in Tashkent. “This country is better positioned to ride it all out than almost anywhere else,” he told me.
And even Uzbekistan’s hospitals might be having a better time of it than some in the U.S., where my kid brother, who is an emergency department doctor, is in the midst of potential coronavirus clouds…
“It’s when you intubate a patient, that’s when it’s most dangerous,” he explained to me a few days ago.
Intubation is like… well, think of a vaudeville sword swallower. But the sword swallower is literally dying for air and needs a sword down his throat so that he can be hooked up to a life-saving ventilator to help him breathe. Only, it’s not a sword (it’s more like a thin foot-long hollow rod). And he’s not swallowing it – someone else is putting it down his windpipe.
The patient – who’s actually not a sword swallower, and who may have COVID-19 –is sedated, since he otherwise wouldn’t react well to someone putting a stick down his esophagus (I wouldn’t either). In order to intubate, the doctor has to get right up in the face of the patient. If everything isn’t perfectly smooth, the patient probably coughs and gasps – and expels millions of little particles into the air.
At this very moment, large swathes of the global economy are playing freeze-tag specifically to avoid those kinds of particles. Except for medical workers – who are squinting in a fog of them.
One of my brother’s many jobs as an ER attending physician is to oversee the medical residents, who are like doctors on training wheels. If an emergency room was an auto repair shop, the residents would be the juniors checking out the chassis, dusting the dashboard, and prepping the cylinders for the master mechanic.
The ER’s attending physician (the master mechanic) oversees a fleet of residents and, like a circus plate-twirler – only with patients’ lives instead of plates – has to balance gunshot wounds, bleeding brains, overworked livers, and birthing mothers. Any little mistake can result in one of those plates crashing to the floor.
In normal times, the residents take care of intubation. But management at the hospital where my brother works decided to protect residents from the dangers of intubation (“one of the most aerosolizing procedures possible,” my brother calls it). So now the master mechanics have to do it.
Patients are intubated in what’s called a “negative pressure room.” That means the air in the room is expelled straight out of the hospital – rather than recirculated in the hospital (for obvious reasons). These rooms have more often been used for patients with tuberculosis, another highly contagious respiratory infection. They’re small and cramped, and “when the hospital was built in the 1970s, I’m sure no one thought we would be using them for critical care,” my brother told me.
As plate-spinning master mechanics, many attending physicians haven’t done intubations in years. (“But it’s like riding a bicycle, right?” I asked my brother. The problem, he told me, is if you’re the patient who’s the practice ride.) While wearing enough PPE (personal protective equipment) to simulate a sauna, they’re intubating potential coronavirus carriers in tiny, poorly ventilated rooms – while the sick patient is steadily exhaling potentially lethal clouds of high-grade coronavirus germs.
I get stressed out just thinking about it… for my brother, for patients, and for doctors around the world facing similar – and far more dire – medical circumstances.
My brother’s advice: Don’t have a heart attack right now. “People with strokes or appendicitis or other true emergencies aren’t getting the same care they would normally. It is a bad, bad time to have to go into the ER.”
It’s a bad time to have a protest movement, too… or to be any country other than Uzbekistan…
Now here are some of the stories we’re reading…
As governments fumbled their coronavirus response, these four got it right. Here’s how.
Sitting just 180 kilometers (110 miles) off the coast of mainland China, Taiwan’s outbreak could have been disastrous. Yet today, Taiwan has just six virus deaths and no reported new cases. What are they doing that the U.S. isn’t?
American Companies Innovate to Fight the Coronavirus, in Echo of World War II
Private ingenuity will be key in helping the economy reopen, which, given signs the pandemic is peaking, could come in the next few months… Major employers from meatpackers to theme park operators and automobile manufacturers are redesigning their operations to integrate social distancing and temperature checks.
Protests draw thousands over state stay-at-home orders during coronavirus pandemic
The protests are occurring as President Donald Trump and governors debate over when states should loosen the restrictions put in place to ensure people practice social distancing. Many protesters are angry about the economic ramifications the restrictions are causing.
What do you think about the stay-at-home orders? Click here to e-mail us your thoughts
What happens to Earth in our absence?
There’s nothing good about the coronavirus, but with a ban on non-essential travel and some countries in lockdown, we’re able to witness what happens to the Earth when we’re largely absent for the first time.
The next 45 days are the ‘most critical period in U.S. financial history’
Stock market expert who profited in 1987 and 2008 crises says, “While on average we may face a bear market every 10 years, this one is like no other.”
And let us know what you’re reading at [email protected].
May you find your way through the chaos,
Chaos Chronicles Editor, American Consequences
With P.J. O’Rourke and the Editorial Staff
April 17, 2020